Asking for what you want in an assignment

Over on Facebook, some of my teaching peers are struggling with an old problem–what to do about the many file formats students will use to turn in work. A semi-new twist has developed: some less-honest students will purposely turn in either a properly labelled incorrect file or a purposely corrupted file to avoid turning in a late assignment, presumably because they haven’t started/finished it and an extra day or three would make a difference.

In my syllabus, I use the following language about late work and how to turn in assignments:

Late Work

Assignments are due on the assigned dates, in the assigned order, and using the assigned delivery method. There will be the occasional homework assignment that is to be printed out and brought to class, but the primary method for turning in work for this class will be using the  “[Assignment Name] Due Here” links on the Hub. If there is a turn-in link, use it. Other attempts at turning in work outside of the assigned delivery method, including email and in person, will not be accepted. In other words, you are expected to turn in each assignment on the assigned due date, using the assigned method, and in the order in which it was assigned. You will have a single class session grace period. After that, you will lose 5% on the assignment for every additional session that the paper is late.

Please feel free to see me for further clarification of my late work policy or to discuss any concerns regarding assignment due dates. I will work with students in advance of due dates to accommodate real needs.

Finally, ONLY YOU CAN BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR COMPUTER AND YOUR INTERNET ACCESS.  While you don’t have to have your own computer to take this class, you certainly need to be able to access the class materials on a near daily basis, which means easy access to a computer connected to the Internet. Ideally, the computer that you regularly use should be less than 5 years old and you should access the Internet through a DSL or Cable Modem connection. If you don’t have this sort of computer set-up, you will inevitably have to spend a lot of time someplace with a computer that does have this level of access (like the library or the 24/7 Cheek Hall lab).

Telling me that you were unable to complete an assignment because of some technical problem (e.g., “My computer crashed” or “I don’t have very good access to the Internet” or “My roommate/ boyfriend/ girlfriend moved out and took the computer”) simply is not acceptable and it will under NO CIRCUMSTANCES be tolerated as an excuse for late work or incomplete assignments.

I’ve put this wording in my syllabus so that students know that assignments are required to be submitted in the form asked for in the assignment, usually a PDF since I grade using iAnnotate. I have a student volunteer show how to “save as PDF” using both Word and LibreOffice the class period before the first assignment is turned in. I also ask then if anyone is using another word processor like the dreaded Microsoft Works or Textedit and promote LibreOffice as free and easy to use. There are always one or two outliers who claim “their computer” can’t produce a PDF file, but also can’t say what software they are using, computer and software being the same concept for them. If they use laptops, I work with them individually. Desktop students, no. Even then, about a third turn in docx or doc or rtf files and I give grace the first time. The second assignment though, I don’t take the assignment and count it late until it is resubmitted in the right format.

This probably sounds dreadful and controlling. What difference should it make? I ask specifically for what I want because I grade using iAnnotate and using that app on my iPad means quicker, better grading. iAnnotate now converts doc and docx files to PDF, but it is slow and adds extra steps to the process, steps that mean a noticeably longer grading time. So, I ask for what I want. I don’t always get it, but the late policy is clear. My due date/time is always an hour before class so that students can see in class on the big screen if their upload is successful. I found that visual proof helps greatly with students who claim it’s “too hard” to submit this way. The formerly common “the site doesn’t work” claim is hard to maintain when twenty-one out of twenty-two people uploaded just fine. I flat out say (privately) to the student that the numbers don’t lie; it is something the student is doing or not doing, and have them submit the file in class right then and there. Of course, there is no file, and the truth comes out. This happens less and less, so the policy is working.

Last semester I noticed an increase in “wrong file” submissions. The file would have the right file name, but would contain a paper for another class or a previous assignment. Upon reflection, I now believe this is purposeful and an attempt to circumvent a late penalty. In the future, I think I will simply count it as late and count off the percentages until the actual paper is submitted. One student though, used this strategy multiple times and when questioned about it, just shrugged. He/she could not say how this could happen as many as four times in a semester and the reason now appears clear. I may be adding wording about incorrect or corrupted files to the late policy. I may also be turning in multiple offenders to the Academic Integrity Council since this is clearly dishonest. Here is what I am thinking about the added wording:

Files submitted that do not contain the correct assignment will count as late until the file with the correct assignment is successfully uploaded. Corrupted files will also count as late, and will be penalized until a working file of the correct assignment is successfully uploaded.

Once again, this may sound very draconic, but I truly hate to see dishonesty rewarded at the expense of students who do the work and do it correctly and on time. Few  writing teachers feel badly about requiring MLA. Using standard style whether MLA or APA is a big part of learning what it is to be an academic. I’m finishing up two articles this month and I would never question whatever technical requirements an editor asked for. Want it in APA? You betcha. Want the webtext in a zip folder? No problem. Want image files sent through a Dropbox link? I can do that. Giving the editor or in this case, the instructor what is asked for in the assignment is what it means to be a good writer, one who acts professionally. Being dishonest to gain a time advantage is not professional at all, and when found out, would seriously damage that writer’s reputation, perhaps permanently. Word gets around. Of course, the students who do these kinds of things also tend to see the BA as something to complete and not a series of somethings to learn. When completion is the goal, a little dishonesty along the way gets easier. My late policy can’t stop that, but it can make things a bit more fair for those who play it straight.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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